By Belinda Bellinger
We fight. We organize. We create. We protest. We dialogue. We coalition. We push. We sing. We rap. We griot. We speak. We write. We listen. We read. We empathize. We challenge. We humble. We agitate. We laugh. We cry. We breath. We grovel. We grieve. We riot. We lean. We rock. We shoulder. We march. We run. We confront. We plan. We strategize. We craft. We matter. We shine. We ready. We go.
Too many times educators become paralyzed by their own feelings and lack of analysis, unable to move and be a beacon of action for our young people who are seeking guidance, assurance, and affirmation.
Before the election arrived, I was already stressed out. My joints were aching, my patience was thin, and my students were getting read as I handed out many come to Jesus moments, left and right. It is a known fact in the education community that October and November are stressful months for teachers for many factors explained here, and that was in addition to the pressures of being a Black, queer, female educator at a middle school committed to social justice and restorative practices. Yadadamean!
By Tuesday, unhinged, I cancelled therapy, feeling too exhausted to withstand a full EMDR session. I just wanted to turn in my ballot on time and be amongst people I cared about. So, I hung with some former students and one of my teacher BFFs, Ms. Lima. As a group, we were Cubana, Filipina, Salvadoreaña, and Black. We shared our angst about what it would mean to be in a country with a named sexist, racist, xenophobe as chief. I dropped my ballot off at the Richmond Senior Center, feeling energized by the sea of brown folks lined up to vote. Once home, my studsband, Oshen, and I sat in our living room to watch the results come in. We went to bed by 9pm as Trump’s lead steadily increased over Clinton’s, departing from the reality that awaited the country.
As a Black San Francisco native who lived through the Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, and Bush Jr. presidencies, I am no stranger to a capitalist and neoliberalist government that impedes on the dignified life of oppressed people in this country and beyond. I was not one to think that Clinton taking office would somehow save the nation. When my students asked me who I was voting for, I told them neither. They asked why. I told them Clinton was a warmonger, and that in the 90s, my family was directly impacted by the policies (welfare reform, ‘94 Crime Bill, etc.) of the Clinton era, so I had a bone to pick.
Still, Wednesday morning, I awoke to Facebook claiming Trump’s victory and it felt like my throat had been noosed. While in traffic, Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now and Cat Brooks’ UpFront kept me grounded. I arrived at Everett Middle School with a determined spirit to keep the day’s instruction rooted in leftist protagonism.
I had 3 goals: 1) provide a safe space for our students to process their feelings; 2) facilitate a discussion about the election results; and 3) remind students that they are connected to a community of freedom fighters, and that we would keep pushing regardless of the election.
I immediately began preparing slides that would help me reach my goals. Whatever lessons I had planned for the day were thrown out the window with the same fervor as Trump’s supporters cast their vote. That same teacher BFF helped me translate the slides into español so we could share them with the entire school for use in everyone’s classes.
As a Black educator, I have developed this routine so that I respond quickly, owing to my background in community organizing and radical activism. Last year, I used this routine to respond to the primary election, when the candidates were first introduced to the public. The year before, I used this same routine to respond to the mass killings of Black people by the hands of police and, specifically, for one of my very own students, Alex Nieto, who was killed by SFPD in some of my students’ own backyard in Bernal Heights.
From the start of the school year, I engage my students in dialogue around identity, the struggles we endure as a result of ours, and the political stances we must take in order to create a world that recognizes and values the dignity of people with intersecting identities providing both privilege and disadvantage. What I find fascinating about the 21st century, is how my students don’t have to sit in a 3-hour long workshop on Unlearning Oppression, like my generation had to back in the 90s, because they can simply watch a 3-minute video on YouTube that breaks it down succinctly with vivid images and sound.
Knowing this, I leverage the use of the times we are in today, and speed right to version 3.0 of that training. In class, we use the tool of process checking as a way to notice the dynamics at play in the classroom, based on privilege and power, and I remind my students how these same dynamics are at play in our larger society and world. In my work, I am prompted to think about how my teaching practice is impacted by the skin I am in, and I invite my students to do the same.
Middle school can be a place that teaches students to conform to the stereotypes society dons on them, but we attempt to teach students that they do not have to conform to society’s boxes, especially when they cause so much harm. Consistently, my students have shown me that they have a very keen insight into how their own experiences are racialized, gendered, and based on their class and social status. They thrive on this process. They appreciate the space provided for them, because they aware of how it helps them make sense of the their own beliefs, actions, and that of others.
I am thankful to be at a school where there is fusion between my political and professional work. I didn’t always have this luxury. My first year as a teacher, I taught at KIPP Bayview Academy, a charter school right in my old neighborhood. I quickly learned in my first and only year at this school that a school culture that thrives on results, assessment scores and how well students comply with expectations, while pushing out Black and Brown youth who do not, would not be a space where I could thrive both politically or professionally, let alone physically. It was also not a place where students would thrive.
If I could speak to my first-year teacher self, I would tell her to reconnect to her movement organizing community so that her work with her students is grounded in something outside of the school. These are the fam-bam that helped get me to college, and who also held me accountable to returning to my community to continue to do social justice work. They would be the ones to tell me that the identity crisis I was experiencing was normal since I was transitioning from being a poor/working-class youth organizer to a professionally, educated woman. I would tell her to go to a Teachers 4 Social Justice general meeting or Book Club.
I would tell her to seek out resources on how to engage in social justice work across differences with folks who do not share her same political values. I know now that someone at that T4SJ meeting would have directed her to a SF-CESS summer training. I would tell her to figure out ways not to isolate herself, because this will contribute to quick burn-out. Lastly, I would tell her that no matter how painful, embarrassing, or nerve-wrecking it feels, to learn to advocate for herself as well as she knows how to speak up for her students.
I will always be an organizer. I will always center the experiences and voice of young people. I do not see age as a limitation to this process, given that I was recruited to the Bay Area youth movement at the age of 15. I will always seize the moment to agitate, build awareness, and move people to do the work.
As a Black educator, I stand by the belief that middle school students are more than capable of developing their own awareness with an experienced facilitator to hold space and impart information. In an article in the San Francisco Examiner, the United Educators of San Francisco stated: “Educators have a role to play to help [students] make sense of the new reality, especially those who come from the communities who have been attacked by Trump, and who now face a very uncertain future.” I could not agree more.
As educators, especially Black educators, it is our duty to fight by having an analysis of political and social issues, a pulse on our own internal work (whether it be dismantling our own personal biases or developing the skills to work across difference), and a strategic plan for how to hold space for difficult conversations about issues, such as the election, as they arise. It is our duty as Black educators to continue within the tradition of our ancestors to initiate resistance and teach our children how to do the same. Will you join me?
Belinda Bellinger is an organizer, educator, and writer, and has worked with young people for over 15 years. She currently is a 7th grade English-Language Arts teacher at Everett Middle School, Facilitator with the Black Teacher Project, and a founding cadre of LeftRoots. She is knowledgeable in all things Black Mirror and seafood gumbo. You can find Belinda on Twitter (@Ms.BellingerSF) and Linkedin.